Hands across the enterprise

Management tools continue to extend their reach

Viewed as a pipe dream only a few years ago, the “autonomous datacenter” gained momentum in 2004, leading some to claim IT as we know it will be dead within a decade. But that’s obvious, isn’t it? In 1994, Usenet was still useful, and Spam tasted great at 1 a.m. The question remains, How soon will we get there -- and who’s behind the wheel?

The good news is it’s coming together faster than you think, and vendors of every stripe are pitching in. Hewlett-Packard’s Adaptive Enterprise, IBM’s On Demand, and similar initiatives from every management software vendor from BMC to Veritas are squarely focused on reducing IT expenses by providing processing resources that can be used for any application or infrastructure component as load demands. Today’s Web server becomes tomorrow’s Citrix server.

One noteworthy trend in 2004 was dedicated service processors in enterprise-class servers. First developed by the big players in commodity servers, add-ons such as the Dell Remote Assistant Card and HP’s Integrated Lights-Out technology are moving from optional to integrated. Even smaller server vendors such as Newisys are incorporating them. When tied together with management software twine, these dedicated processors make remote BIOS-level monitoring and modifications much simpler.

Real network management became possible for smaller enterprises this year. For a long time, desktop access to network services was provided by dumb hubs in closets that were left alone until they failed. With the push toward integrating VoIP, wireless, and network-level authentication -- and the need to more closely monitor traffic within the enterprise -- the edge is getting smarter. With these smarts comes more administrative overhead, and suddenly, managing access devices for 500 users becomes troublesome.

Notably, Cisco has been slow to offer reasonably priced, dedicated management tools for its switching and routing line. CiscoWorks still exists but misses the mark for the smaller infrastructure. New switching vendors, notably Dell, are capitalizing on this shortcoming by offering low-priced managed switches for both the core and the edge of smaller networks. In addition to the devices themselves, Dell is providing an integrated management framework, giving administrators a central application to manage servers and switches. Although clearly an attempt to lock customers into Dell’s product line, the carrot doesn’t look half bad.

Vendors such as AlterPoint and Rendition Networks have been aiming a bit higher, providing centralized device management tools that ease the burden of managing large networks. These tools are especially well-suited to widespread, heterogeneous networks, as well as networks undergoing a phased transition to a new hardware vendor. With the potential to automate changes throughout the network from a single console and to apply and enforce best practices from the core to the edge, these tools are finally bringing fine-grained control to administrators of large networks.

As the boundary between systems and networks continues to blur, consistent network management will be mandatory and compulsory. Gone are the days of simply plugging a system in to an RJ45 jack and ensuring that a DHCP lease was granted. Network-level access control is here to stay, and for the short term, administering it will be somewhat of a headache.

Nevertheless, we’re seeing progress. Prevalent use of network-level authentication standards 802.1x and EAP (Extensible Authentication Protocol) got a major boost from companies rolling out these technologies for Wi-Fi access. When a 802.1x/EAP framework is in place on the WLAN, extending its reach to every corner of the wired network becomes that much easier.

That’s not to say that deploying wireless networks is simple. Despite the challenges, however, more planned and sanctioned corporate WLANs turned up in 2004 than any other year, and vendors have been scurrying to meet the management demand. The kinks are still being worked out, and despite the fact that no solid standard for WLAN deployment and management yet exists, there’s always hope for 2005.

Overall, 2004 brought management tools -- and their limitations -- to the forefront. IT directors saw HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley written on the wall and realized that the budget needed to account for ways to prove compliance. Centralized control of every aspect of the network -- from the configuration and monitoring of devices to who gets access to what and when -- is the only realistic way to get there, and we know it.